Edie Falco has never been the type of actor to demand entourages and encores. Fanfares and fuss are just not her bag, and she has little time for pretentious thespiness. When other actors talk about their “Process,” as she puts it – with a capital P – she thinks, “What are you talking about?!” With her open, thoughtful face and wide smile, she looks as if she could be your friend from the local coffee shop, as opposed to one of the most accoladed American actors of this century, having accumulated two Golden Globes, four Emmys and five Screen Actors Guild awards, plus a jaw-dropping 47 nominations. This impression of straightforwardness and – oh dreaded word – relatability has made her subtle performances of self-deceiving characters even more powerful. As the mob wife, Carmela, in The Sopranos, she could tell Tony (James Gandolfini) what she thought of him staying out all night with his “goomahs”, or mistresses, but she couldn’t admit to herself that he does much worse to fund the life she loves. Similarly, as Nurse Jackie, in the eponymous TV series, her scrubbed clean face and sensible short hair belied her character’s drug addiction.
So it feels extremely right that, when we connect by video chat, Falco, 58, is sitting – not in a fancy hotel room, or a Hollywood mansion, but in the endearingly messy basement of her New York house, where she lives with her son, 16, and daughter, 13. Power tools hang off the wall behind her, and she is leaning on a table strewn with what she describes as “God knows, some stuff”.
“I’m in my office, or craft room, I don’t know what the hell you call it. It’s where I hang things and fix things and sew things,” she says. It’s hard to imagine Carmela firing up a drill, but then, Falco and her most famous character have pretty much nothing in common. For a start, Falco can’t cook. Wait, Carmela, the best cook in the state, maker of the greatest baked ziti God has ever known, can’t make bolognese?
“Not even close. If you watch the scenes in the show where I’m supposed to be cooking, you’ll see the camera never showed my hands, because I have no idea how to do that. That food is not even the kinda stuff I eat. I was vegetarian on the show and I became vegan in the past 10 years.”
Tony would never have stood for this. So how did she eat all that lasagne on The Sopranos? “We learned tricks so it looked like we were eating, but we weren’t. But Jim ate in every frigging take, and he ate between takes. There was one scene we were shooting, where he was eating a bowl of ice-cream, and in every take he ate and would then re-fill the bowl, and then at one point, I realised he’s not really listening to me – he had gone into a sugar coma! We had to stop and shoot the rest of the scene another day. He was like a five-year-old: ‘The ice-cream is good, I like it!’ I was like, ‘You gotta stop, you’re gonna get sick!’”
Gandolfini died in 2013, at the age of 51, from a heart attack. “It’s sad. Just incredibly sad,” she says. Recently, she and one of her closest friends, Aida Turturro, who played the deliciously infuriating Janice Soprano, tried to watch the whole show, as they’d never seen it. They only lasted four episodes.
“It was too fraught, and a big part of that is Jim. People die and you move on, then you see them on screen, and it is too shocking. And Jimmy and I were kids then! Neither of us knew what we were doing, but we worked in the same way, not preparing, but like kids in a sandbox. Aida and I watched a few episodes and I said, ‘This is killing me,’” she says.
Falco and Gandolfini’s marital chemistry rang so true, their on-screen fights so devastating, that to viewers it felt as if they were really married, and it felt like that to Falco, too. “I adored Jimmy, but we didn’t hang out a lot. So when I looked in his face, he wasn’t Jim, he was Tony.” Also, she adds, the eight years she spent “married” to him on The Sopranos was “the longest intimate relationship” she has ever had. She is certain that it’s because people still think of her as an embattled wife, 14 years after The Sopranos ended, that she was cast in her latest role, as Hillary Clinton in Impeachment: American Crime Story, Ryan Murphy’s take on President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. “I’m sure Ryan thought, ‘Oh Edie does fight scenes with husbands’, you know what I mean?” she says.
I had never before thought about the connections between Hillary and Carmela but actually, they stack up pretty well: they are both women married to powerful men with definite self-control problems. They are determined to keep their marriages together even if it means compromising themselves to do so. And they also, to various degrees, lie to themselves. According to Impeachment, Hillary is genuinely shocked when Clinton finally tells her he did have an affair with Lewinsky, even though he had been accused before of having affairs. “I don’t know how Hillary could have got through the day if she let herself know [what her husband was doing], and Carmela’s whole life was denial. If she had thought about what her husband did to make money, she would have blown up the whole family.”
But Falco is a Hillary supporter, so she takes care to emphasise that the former secretary of state is not EXACTLY like a mob wife: “I do think Hillary is a genuinely good person and is into public service. I do not believe that was the case with Carmela. She wanted what she had: house, kids, money,” she says.
It’s a bit unfair to ask Falco to compare her character in Impeachment with her character in The Sopranos, given she played the former for a few days and the latter for eight years: “By the end, I really felt like a part of myself behaved like Carmela, like she was my alter ego,” she says. When The Sopranos’ creator, David Chase, phoned her a year or so ago to ask if she could do a monologue as Carmela for his Sopranos prequel film, The Many Saints of Newark, Falco was game: “And then, just like that, I was Carmela again, which felt so crazy, because I’m such a different person now to who I was then,” she says.
I ask what she thought about Vera Farmiga’s performance as Tony’s mother in the movie, given how closely she resembled Carmela, playing up Tony’s Freudian side: “Right, that was weird to watch, the mannerisms. But she did a fantastic job,” she says. Was Falco annoyed that Chase ultimately cut her monologue out? “No not at all! It was just fun doing it, working with David. I honestly couldn’t care less about it not being in the movie. It’s always just about the work,” she says, and I actually believe her.
Falco grew up on Long Island, the second of four kids, with an amateur actor for a mother and a jazz drummer father. “There was very little about my upbringing that was conventional. We had two creatively minded young people trying to make a family, so we really grew up feral,” she says. Her parents divorced and remarried each other twice, “and my mother had other husbands in between, so there was a lot of chaos.”
Does she think that’s why her onscreen marriage to Gandolfini was her longest relationship, because she didn’t grow up with a template for marriage? “That’s it. But I’ve been in therapy since time began, so I can look on my childhood now with such love. It was a bunch of people really, really trying.”
Her mother would bring her along whenever she was rehearsing a play, and Falco quickly got the acting bug. The problem was that she was terribly shy. She was talented, so she got into the State University of New York (Suny) Purchase (acting) programme, in the same era as Stanley Tucci and Ving Rhames. But, whereas the other kids were good at putting themselves forward and talking about their “process”, Falco stayed in the shadows, and her confidence plummeted. She has talked about her alcoholism in the past and I ask if she started to drink to compensate for her shyness.
“Totally. I was a non-drinker for years, then I had my first drink at college and I found nirvana. It was the answer to all my problems, and the cause of all my other problems.” Did she just use alcohol? “Yes, but only because I didn’t have any money. I was a big fan of cocaine if it was around, but I could never afford any, and marijuana just gave me anxiety.”
She would choose boyfriends based on whether they drank or not – “I’d wait to hear how quickly they’d mention alcohol, and that’s how I knew they were the next guy” – and convinced herself she worked better when she was hungover. But one March morning, when she was 29, she woke up in her apartment after a long night, saw she’d left her front door open, and knew she was done. Soon after that, her career began to take off, with small roles in films including Cop Land alongside Sylvester Stallone and Hal Hartley’s Trust, although she was still, she says, “a waitress for about 20 years”. When she auditioned for The Sopranos, she was certain Marisa Tomei or Annabella Sciorra would get the part, which allowed her to enjoy the audition and not worry about it. Was she scared when she found out she got it? “Not at all. I knew I could do it. An Italian-American housewife – this was someone I grew up with,” she says.
After The Sopranos, Falco went into Nurse Jackie, which ran for seven seasons, one more than The Sopranos. Was it her idea to make Jackie an addict? “Never, never, never. That stuff’s way too close to me, and I had a hard time with the idea of a comedy about addiction. I said to them, ‘If the last season isn’t about her going to meetings and getting help, she has to be dead at the end, so people know what it’s like.’”
Although the show ended with her character overdosing, it is left a little ambiguous as to whether she died. Were the programme-makers riffing on the infamously ambiguous ending of the Sopranos, in which many felt it wasn’t clear if Tony died? “I think they were just afraid of people getting upset. They wanted to leave the option open [that she survived], and I kicked and screamed. I don’t understand the decisions made by executives, but I’ve learned to make peace with them,” she shrugs.
It was while she was working on Nurse Jackie that she adopted her daughter, having adopted her son while she was on The Sopranos. Was it hard to adopt as a single woman? “Not particularly, actually. I’d got to know Rosie O’Donnell, who had adopted kids when she was single, and she said, ‘When you’re ready, give me a call’. So I did, and she gave me the info, and a year later I was holding my son. I remember when they handed him to me –” she breaks off, choked by a sob. She puts her hand on her chest, trying to swallow it down. “Sorry! Gosh, I didn’t expect that, I’m sorry. I just remember looking at this little baby and thinking, ‘I have no idea how to do this!’ But here we are, almost 17 years later,” she says.
At this point, we go off record, to talk about kids and parenting during lockdown. By now, it really does feel as if I’m talking to a friend. I ask if there is ever a point – in parenting, in work – where you feel like you do know what you’re doing.
“No never!” she hoots. “That’s the pain, but it’s also the joy.”
Impeachment: American Crime Story is on BBC Two on Tuesday at 9pm. The series is also available on BBC iPlayer.
• This article was amended on 4 December 2021. The series is on BBC Two on Tuesdays, not Wednesdays as an earlier footnote said.